Throughout history, some pretty novel ways of trying to tell the future have come and gone.
A crystal ball is the most obvious and dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s most often associated with Gypsies, who were only called Gypsies because people thought they were from Egypt. But the Romani, as they’re correctly called, certainly didn’t hail from Africa.
Then there’s tasseography, also known as reading tea leaves. In the 16th century, Gypsies would dump used-up tea or coffee on a plate or cup and try to read the future based on the resulting shapes.
That’s better, though no more plausible, than extispicy—using animal entrails to predict the future, a favorite of the ancient Mesopotamians.
And we can’t forget tarot cards, which were first printed in Milan in the mid–15th century as a supplement to traditional playing cards. Basically, they were just a pack of trump cards until the Gypsies got creative. Gypsies were also associated with palm reading and astrology, but we can’t blame every mode of fortune telling on them.
The Ouija board dates back to 1100 AD China, though it became a popular toy in the early 20th century, with several businessmen fighting over the rights. It’s now a registered trademark of Hasbro Inc., maker of other such spiritual enlightenments as My Little Pony, Twister, and Candy Land.
These are just some outlandish examples of forecasting, but the truth is, the future is anybody’s guess.
Last year featured ultra-low interest rates, more liquidity, and ever-compressing cap rates, and many expect more of the same this year. But underwriting may be tightening up in 2013. Why is that?
With all the liquidity this sector is seeing, with all the high values and big acquisitions going down, with all the equity chasing apartments, you’d think underwriting would only grow more borrower-friendly. Seems counterintuitive, right?
But it’s only because rates are so low, and because there’s so much value inflation, that underwriting has to tighten up, as you’ll see in our cover story. The capital markets are the brake pedals, screeching just before we become victims of our own success.
Our sector certainly has the wind at its back, but several trends will test our momentum. The growing amount of new construction, the strengthening for-sale market, and uncertainty over capital markets regulation (housing finance reform, tax reform, Dodd-Frank) will put our sector’s mettle to the test, as you’ll see in Sam Chandan’s excellent analysis.
Like the readings from crystal balls, tea leaves, Ouija boards, and, yes, splattered entrails, you have to consider the source, and its vested interests.
In 2007, an Israeli woman was charged with “practicing magic” for reading coffee grinds, which could have landed her in jail for five years. But she got off because the Israeli government deemed it too difficult to prove whether she was faking it or not.
Pro formas can work that way too. Financiers try their damndest to read the future through underwriting, to avoid irrational exuberance, but sometimes we see only what we want to see.
Time will tell whether, or to what degree, we’re faking it or not.